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Wraiyth

Starting Sound Engineering

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Hey all, Well I'm a coder, and I want to get into some other aspect of game development apart from that. I've got no artistic talent whatsoever, so modelling and skinning are out of the question, and all thats left is sound engineering and development. So what sort of software do I need to begin sound engineering? Do I actually need any physical equipment in real life to be able to do it?

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If you have an audio card and headphone/speaker, just pick up a cheap copy of fruityloops for under 100 and that'll be a start for you to start composing and editing. After grasping the basics, chances are you'll want to expand with a keyboard, better soundcard, monitor speaker, controllers, a better sequencer program, and more VSTi... but those are a little further down the roads la.

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You can start playing around with editing sounds in a basic two-track editor like Audacity (it's open source).

When you're familiar with that you can get a multitrack program - Audition, Vegas or Cubase for example. This will make mixing sounds together a lot easier.

You need to get hold of sounds to work with. There are some free sounds available on the net. There are commercial libraries available (for download and on CD/DVD). You can get an audio interface and record direct in to your computer. You can get a portable recording rig and record sounds anywhere you like to take back to your computer for editing later.

Don't go spending any money on anything till you've hit a brick wall in your learning.

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You'll probably have trouble getting hold of a tape recorder these days?! Unless it's a big boys reel to reel recorder which costs about $5k ;) I guess the contemporary equivalent is a minidisc recorder.

"At the end of the day" it doesn't matter what you're recording on to or how expensive your microphone is - it's how usable the recording you've made is. If it's too noisy (because it was a very quiet sound and you've got shitty equipment) then it might be an unusable recording. If it was too loud and it's all distorted because you didn't set your levels properly or the mic preamp overloaded then it might be an unusable recording. If you captured the sound you wanted but it is covered in a whole bunch of other sounds which you can't remove then it might be an unusable recording.

I suggest you start recording stuff so you go through the pains of learning how to make good recordings. If you don't have anything portable then just start recording stuff in to your computer.

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I disagree with Kenbar regarding not spending money until you hit a brick wall. In my experience, it's all too easy to develope bad habits (technically speaking) early on in an audio career.

Set aside a full week to roll as much tape as you possibly can. Next, go through the phone book and make a list of everyone who rents out equipment for video production, broadcast news gathering, and film production. With any luck, you'll be able to get your hands on the following 5 pieces of gear:

1: a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones

2: a 48V phantom-powered Sennheiser MKH-416 shotgun microphone (including a rycote windshield, pistol grip suspension, and wind-jammer) with a 10-foot XLR mic cable

3: a Nagra IV open-reel tape recorder (or a Tascam DA-P1 DAT recorder if no Nagras are available)

4: as much tape stock for the recorder as you think you can run through

5: plenty of extra batteries for the recorder

Many rental houses will discount week-long rentals so you're only paying for 3 or 4 days, so shop around. You may even get them to throw in a microphone stand at no extra charge.

Make a list of all the various sounds you want to play with, as well as the ones you would like to have on file for future use. Go through your DVD collection and watch any "making of" documentaries that touch upon sound design. In particular, track down the bonus disk in the Star Wars boxed set, and find yourself a nice long guy cable that you can use to make your own sci-fi laser effects (or just dig the slinkey out of your junk drawer). Find any tutorials on foley recording, and take notes.

Once you have that gear in hand, you can be confident that you're learning sound effects recording with a kit that has been the standard in high-end motion picture effects work ever since the `70's.

First, figure out how to load the batteries and the tape into the machine. There's no shortage of online tutorials on these pieces of gear, so you shouldn't have problems finding guidance there. Next, try recording yourself saying something. Get to know how loud you can get before hearing distortion, how quiet you can get before getting mired in tape hiss and mic self-noise, and how both of these properties relate to the meters on the recorder. You should also establish a confortable headphone level.

Spend a few hours recording people's voices in your home (it helps to have a volunteer assistant). Experiment with different mic placements: what happens when the mic moves away from the subject? What about when the mic points away from them? Experiment with the "low-pass" filters on the recorder. If you've managed to snag a Nagra IV, try recording at different tape speeds and compare the recordings.

Once you've become relatively comfortable with basic recording, hit the road. Go somewhere very windy and compare the amount of wind noise removed by the foam windscreen, the Rycote windshield, and the big furry wind-jammer. Try recording near electrical transmission towers or other sources of radio interference. Go hiking in the woods and through busy downtown streets, recording 2-minute background loops as you go. Find a quiet rural road and record the sound of car engines dopplaring as they pass by. Just remember to always record with a limiter engaged.

Also bear in mind that extremely loud sounds (eg. gunshots) should be approached with extreme caution (both for your equipment and for your precious and irreplaceable ears). When in doubt, record too low and increase the gain slightly for the next take.

Try recording animals. Record any dogs, cats, horses, and walrusses (especially walrusses) you can get ahold of. Just please don't hurt anything.

Find yourself a nice, big, quiet room and cover every hard surface with heavy quilts and moving blankets. Make this you're foley studio, and experiment with recording as many things as you can get in there. Pay close attention to the accoustics of you're studio: how "wet" or "dry" do your effects sound? Try your hand at recording really soft effects (such as a pat on the shoulder or a stomache gurgle) and really loud sounds (such as an oil drum getting kicked or a couple of crow bars banging together). Grab some produce from the fridge and see what it sounds like when you snap a bundle of celery, crush a leek, twist a soup spoon into an orange, and slash a head of cabbage with a machete. Thaw out a big easter ham and try beating the hell out of it.

If you plan everything out well, in addition to learning the ins and outs of the gear you can also create for yourself a library of hours of proprietary effects, all for a fraction of the cost of a commercial sound effects collection. Don't worry too much about getting the sounds into your computer at this stage, since propperly stored tapes can last for decades before they degrade significantly.

By the end of the week, you should have a basic understanding of recording techniques. More importantly, though, you'll have a point of reference for evaluating other pieces of gear. When most beginners are saying "wow, this minidisc recorder sounds way better than that microcasette dictaphone I'm used to," you'll be saying "hmm, the minidisc's mic preamp's are pretty noisey, but the effect's I'll be recording are loud enough to begin with that the hiss won't be too much of a problem." Or, when a friend proudly shows you the "pofessional" mic they bought second hand from a DJ buddy of theirs, you'll be able to listen to it once and know that while you would be able to get audio onto the tape, you'd be wrestling with low output level, self noise, and slurred consonant articulation. There's a number of reasons why expereinced sound recordists still spend thousands on a single condensor microphone kit while the market is currently flooded with $200-$500 back-electret microphones, and if you're serious about starting an audio career you'll want to hear the same differences.

Anyway, good luck with your undertaking, and happy hunting.

P.S. I almost forgot: if you rent a Nagra, make sure that it can provide 48V Phantom power, rather than just T-12 power. Personally, I prefer the added RF-rejection T-12 provides, but it's getting harder and harder to find mics that use it.

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I'm not really looking at a 'career' as such, just a hobby like programming. I don't think I've got the cash to hire equipment just to start learning (I'm only 16, and haven't worked in a while) so if thats what it takes then I think I might have to give sound a big miss. Unless of course it is possible to get good-quality effects using say, just a mic recording onto a laptop for example.

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Earth to smuir, earth to smuir! :)

smuir has good intensions but he's clearly one XLR socket short of an AES/EBU patch bay when he tells someone who's never really recorded anything before to rent a Nagra IV. That's like giving a Ferarri to a 16 year-old non-driver and telling them "knock yourself out and go learn how to drive" - you just wouldn't do it, unless they were under the supervision of a qualified driving instructor.

I don't see how playing with professional/expensive gear for a week prevents you from picking up bad habits. Where's the connection there?

That's not what it takes Wraiyth. All you need is a bit of passion, and you haven't had that kindled yet so don't worry about it. JUST GO RECORD STUFF. It doesn't matter what you use - just go.

Now.

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Kenbar makes a good point: the learning method I reccomended may not be for everyone. My own first exposure to pro audio was actually when I was a production assistant on a film shoot. The production mixer flaked out at the last possible minute, and the PAs drew straws to see who would temporarily replace him until a new mixer could be found. At the end of the day, the levels were pretty inconsistant, but it proved to be an excellent learning experience.

Over the years, I've worked with numerous up-and-coming recordists and sound editors. The "bad habits" I refer to generally relate to having no point of reference in evaluating equipment. I've had people rave about the extrordinary quality of $200 back-electret shotgun mics and recordings made using consumer MP3 recorders. The fact is that their point of reference is usually either the mic that came with their computer or their camcorder's on-camera mic. By starting off working with professional equipment, a beginner can avoid the common pitfall of buying the first microphone they see with "pro" and "50% off" on the box. My personal conviction is that $200 is better spent renting excellent gear for a short period than buying cheap gear that may or may not be well suited to your application.

As for the driving analogy, bear in mind that few pedestrians have ever been killed by inexperienced sound recordists. If you carefully follow the instructions on loading the tape and batteries, you're really only risking the rental cost.

However, I have been remiss in not reccomending professional instruction. If you're uninterested in taking a sound engineering course at a local community college, try tracking down weekend workshops in production sound. Many local film production co-ops offer one or two-day courses that dovetail nicely with the skills needed for sound effects recording. For that matter, see if you can find a sound designer or effects editor whom you can job shadow.

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Risking the rental cost is the thing - at the moment I'm actually not working (did my knee so I can't work). I've got a fair bit of spare time but no cash which is why I want to try and do it cheaply and now :)

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